When you’re planning on hiking through the wilderness for a few days, weeks or months, you probably wonder how on Earth it’s possible to carry all of the necessities for your daily routine on your back. The solution involves choosing the right hiking backpack, understanding what goes into the proper fit and reframing your mindset. Don’t plan on carrying all of your worldly possessions. Instead, know what’s necessary and pack accordingly.
Advice On How To Choose A Proper Hiking Backpack
When choosing a hiking backpack, it’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. You can take a look at Best Hiking Backpacks 2018 reviews and see if you should you pick a backpack based on the amount of gear you’ll need to carry, or should you select your equipment based on the size of your pack? No matter what paraphernalia you have, it won’t serve you very well if you can’t carry it. A lanky, 6’ individual will have different hiking backpack requirements than a compact 5’4” person. The length of your trip and the type of hiking that you’ll do also plays a large role in your gear selection.
How To Pick A Hiking Backpack
In the section on backpack style below, we’ll delve into how to choose the correct size and fit for a hiking backpack. For now, you might want to familiarize yourself with the different types of packs and advice that seasoned hikers offer on the internet.
Daypacks and those without frames are ideal for hikes that don’t involve camping. If you’re going on a journey for more than one day, though, you’ll probably want to upgrade to a backpack with an internal or external frame, which we describe below in more detail. Get a sense of the type of backpack you need to whittle down your options.
Start making a list of the gear that you’ll need, based on this article and other advice that you see on the web. A general guideline involves bringing items that provide:
- Sun protection
- First aid
In her book “Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” Cheryl Strayed gives a hilarious account of her first attempt at packing a bag that she nicknamed Monster for her 93-day trek. She could not even hoist the backpack onto her back. Over-packing is one of the most common rookie mistakes. Even Strayed admits in an Outside interview that she would do it differently if she hiked the trail again. Finding the middle zone is the best course of action when you’re packing for a multi-day hike.
Reduce Your Load
Homemade Wanderlust explains that bringing along a luxury item isn’t the worst thing in the world. However, some things that you might want to leave behind are: More than one of the same item
- Several changes of clothes
- Family photo albums
- Multiple sets of extra batteries
- Many extra headlamps
- Additional water filters
Consider bringing multi-purpose items, and think outside the box if a particular piece of gear breaks or gets lost. If there is a camera you should definitely take with you, check out Lowepro ProTactic 450 AW Camera Backpack. If not, ask yourself if you could go three days without a certain item.
The Trek explains that you should choose one type of shoe that works for every kind of terrain. Bringing an extra set of camp shoes can add about 10 oz. to your load, according to Backpacker. Get rid of your wallet to shave off 6 oz., stuff sacks to lose 20 oz., your extra pot to shed 8 oz. and a trowel to drop 3 oz. Oh, and forget about a pillow. Stuff clothes into your sleeping bag hood instead.
If you hike regularly, one tip for reducing your load is to make a list of the items that you don’t use every time you return from a trek. Anything that you don’t use for three consecutive journeys doesn’t need to come along with you next time. The only exception to this is the first aid kit.
Try On The Backpack With Weight
When you’re trying on a hiking backpack, fill it with about 15 pounds of gear. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as it’s evenly distributed. Many outdoor gear retailers have sandbags available to use while trying on backpacks. You can also use water bottles, climbing ropes or anything that will fill it up and provide the weight that you need.
Don’t Set It And Forget It
Before you hit the trail, give yourself ample time to fine-tune the adjustments so that your backpack fits you like a glove. However, don’t get too comfy. Many people are afraid to adjust their pack once they’ve begun their trek. However, as items shift and your body moves, your hiking backpack will need some modification. Off recommends loosening your shoulder straps slightly when you’re going uphill. Tighten them when traveling down an incline. A heavy pack won’t feel perfect all the time. Don’t be afraid to tweak the hip strap, torso size, shoulder straps and load lifters along the way.
Know Your Pack
The Trek describes the importance of familiarizing yourself with your pack. If you’re getting bruises from a three-day hike, your pack doesn’t fit you properly. Taking your backpack on day hikes to test it out is one of the best ways to get used to it.
Don’t Ignore The Weather
Climate will play a part in the type of backpack you choose. A style that promotes airflow can help you stay cool in warm weather. A bag with extra waterproofing will keep your stuff dry when it rains. You might need more room for bulkier items to keep you warm if you’re planning to hike in the winter.
Don’t Follow The Crowd
According to Packsmith, many people purchase the brand and style of a hiking backpack that they see everyone else using. Your needs may be different than another hiker’s, not to mention the variations in your strength, size and body shape. Reading reviews is great and highly recommended, but don’t neglect to try out your gear to ensure that it’s right for you.
Common Problems With Hiking Backpacks
Many hikers are confident that they’ve made the right purchase, only to realize that their backpacks don’t work as well as they expected once they’re out in the wilderness. One of the biggest problems with hiking backpacks is chafing. Chafing occurs when friction rubs away at your skin. The most common points of chafing from a backpack are:
- At the hip belt
- On the lower back
- Under the shoulder straps
Some chafing can be reduced by wearing the backpack properly. For example, situating it too low on the hips can make the fins rub against your groin while you walk. If your pack sways when you move, it might rub the skin on your shoulders. You can also avoid chafing by wearing the right clothing. Pants with smooth waistbands reduce this problem, as do synthetic fabrics that have moisture-wicking properties. Baggy clothing can fold underneath the backpack, causing irritation.
Backpack issues can also be resolved by purchasing the right size for your body type. Below, we tell you how to measure your torso so that you can start your search with the right characteristics in mind. Some simple pieces of advice to consider when you fit a backpack include:
- If there is space between your shoulders and the straps, the backpack might be too long or the load lifters may be too tight.
- The backpack feels too heavy on your shoulders – it could be too short or the hip belt might not be positioned or sized properly.
- When the front of your shoulders hurt after hiking, you might need to reposition your hip strap or lighten your load.
- The shoulder straps rub against your neck, try loosening the sternum strap or buying a good backpack with a wider harness.
- If the shoulder pads slide onto your arms, tighten the sternum strap or buy a backpack with a narrower shoulder harness.
- When the hiking backpack feels like it’s pulling you back, tighten the load lifters or repack your items so that heavier gear is against your body.
Although the type of backpack that you choose will determine the comfort level that you have on your hike, properly packing it will do wonders. If you’re trying to pack all of your hiking days into one backpack, you must know how to spread out the load.
How to Choose the Best Backpack Style
You’ll want to consider the following before making your decision. Let’s look at a few of the most important aspects.
In backpacking, size matters. Eastern Mountain Sports explains that a hiking backpack should match your torso length. Understanding this can help you instantly narrow your search. To measure your torso, drop your head to your chest, and feel for the C7 vertebra that protrudes at the base of your neck. Measure between that location and the top of your pelvic bones at your hip.The space between the top of the shoulder strap and the hip belt on the pack should correspond with the torso length of the backpack. Even a perfect measurement doesn’t guarantee comfort, though. Trying on different styles and brands of backpacks in person will help you get a good sense of what’s comfortable.
Timbuk2 Backpack makes a variety of bags for different types of users, and everyone I know that’s used one of their bags has sung their praises.
The shape, padding and location of the hip and shoulder straps are almost as important as the torso length. Section Hiker explains that the hip belt should sustain most of the pack’s weight. Your legs contain the largest muscles in your body. They can withstand more heft than your shoulders can. Hip belts can be tricky. Whereas many backpacks have adjustable torso lengths, the hip belts size is typically fixed based on the height of the pack. Even if you love everything else about the backpack, if the hip belt isn’t ideal, you’re going to notice when you’re on the trail.
The hip belt features padded wings with thinner webbing to connect them to the buckle. If the wings don’t wrap around to the front of your body, the weight will be allocated to the back of your body. The padded wings should cover the front of your hip bones. If the pads touch when you have them adjusted properly, however, the hip belt is too big for you. You’ll wear the hip belt around the top of your hipbones. When it fits well, a hip strap can carry 80 to 90 percent of the load, according to Outdoor Gear Lab. This video from Backpacker Magazine Gear School demonstrates how to ensure that your hip belt and shoulder straps fit correctly.
Hiking backpacks are categorized by volume in liters. If you’re traveling for one to three days, you can get away with a 30 to 50-liter pack. A 50 to 80-liter backpack is recommended for a trip that lasts up to five days. For an extended journey, you’ll need at least a 70-liter pack. Still, bigger is not always better. Forty pounds can feel like 100 after a week on the trail, especially if the backpack doesn’t fit well or is packed with poor weight distribution.
While it might sound nice to carry minimal weight while hiking, understand that an ultralight hiking backpack must be used properly. These are designed to hold less weight. If you try to fill them with more than they’re designed for, they won’t be comfortable. You could compromise the durability of the bag as well as the wear and tear on your body.
Bearfoot Theory explains that you have to match the size and weight of your gear with the specifications of your backpack. If you’re considering transitioning to an ultralight pack, Outdoor Gear Lab recommends starting by purchasing ultralight gear. After you’re comfortable with the lighter weight sleeping bags, tent and clothing, you can invest in the backpack to match it.
A hiking backpack’s fit must be balanced with its usability.
Most hiking backpacks have internal frames. Some don’t have a frame at all, while a few brands still have external frames. Those with no frames tend to weigh less, but they offer little in the way of suspension and ventilation. They’re probably not your best bet for a multi-day hike. External-frame packs can withstand heavier loads and provide more airflow between the material and your back. However, they’re usually the bulkiest option. Internal-frame backpacks are fairly compact and carry the load closer to your body. The streamlined shape makes them easier to transport in a vehicle or along an overgrown trail. They are usually the most expensive option, but they tend to be created with lighter weight materials than external-frame products.
Even the best-packed load can feel heavier if it’s flopping around behind you. Compression straps make everything more compact. They can reduce sway even with light loads. They also give you a place to stash bulky or oddly shaped items that don’t fit inside the bag. Some features to look for in compression straps include:
- Separate straps and buckles – One strap that makes a long z-shape might not adequately hold multiple items.
- Quick-release buckles – You don’t want to fiddle with your sack in an emergency.
- Even spacing – You need to keep load stabilization in mind.
- Easy entry – You shouldn’t have to loosen or unbuckle the straps when accessing the interior compartments.
If your hiking backpack won’t be full, you can tighten the compression straps before packing it so that all of the items don’t fall to the bottom of your pack. Some larger backpacks have special compression straps that let you reduce the size of the bag when it’s not packed to the brim.
When you’re loading a backpack, you’ll generally place items that are heavier and used less frequently in the bottom or center of the bag. You don’t want to have to pull everything out to access the things that you’ll need on the trail, though. That’s when different compartments and external attachments come in handy. Multiple zippers can help you get in and out of the different areas of your pack with ease. They usually boost the price of the item, though. You can get away with a cheaper bag if you purchase internal organization tools, such as compression sacks.
If you’re trying to minimize weight, though, you might want to eliminate compression sacks. A backpack with a separate compartment for the sleeping bag often lets you get rid of an extra stuff sack. You can store the sleeping bag directly in the compact area. External loops and bungees let you lash items to the outside of your bag. If you dangle too much gear from your sack, however, you’ll throw off your center of gravity. Still, some external attachments are helpful for carrying wet items or solar chargers. You can often purchase external attachments for shoulder straps separately.
A removable top flap, or floating lid, gives you a place to stash frequently used items. Sometimes, these are removable and can be used as day packs once you have set up camp. Water is one of the heaviest things that you’ll carry while hiking. Two liters of water weighs about 4.4 pounds. It’s a good idea to carry a water filtration system so that you can treat water that you collect from natural sources. Unfortunately, water isn’t always easy to come by, and it’s not a necessity that you can safely forego.
According to The Hiking Life, you should drink about one liter of water per hour in hot conditions. Carrying enough water for an 8-hour hike would put about 18 extra pounds on your back, though. You can get away with drinking half that much in milder conditions, but hydration is a highly personal requirement. A backpack with a hydration bladder can be convenient, but soft bladders can be punctured.
If that happens, you might end up soaking items that aren’t stored in a dry bag and losing your hydration source. Plus, bladders can freeze in cold weather. If your backpack has water bottle pockets on the side, you can store a few bottles for easy access on the trail. Section Hiker surveyed 402 hikers and found that 76 percent wouldn’t buy a hiking backpack without side water bottle pockets. (For the record, 81 percent said that interchangeable or adjustable-length hip belts were a must.)
Water bottle pockets aren’t the only organization that hikers prefer. This Altitude Blog author explains that a backpack without pockets on the hip straps is a deal-breaker. Some backpacks have waterproof front pockets that give you a place to separate wet gear from your dry items. Lid pockets are good for flat, small objects. Pockets come down to preference.
Most people like to separate some of their items, but if you split up your gear into too many compartments, you need to remember where you put it. When it comes to outfitting yourself for your journey vs. streamlining your bag, Backpacker says that you can reduce up to 20 percent of your backpack’s weight by removing the extras, such as the lid, daisy chains and pockets. We’ll discuss what you really need on the trail later.
Analyzing Your Hiking Route To Choose The Proper Backpack
Don’t wait to plan your backpacking trip until after you’ve chosen a backpack. Part of your purchasing decision hinges on your travel plans. Researching trip reports will help you learn whether there’s a particular item that is absolutely necessary for this trek.
Pick A Date
To determine the type and size of a hiking backpack that you’ll need, you’ll need to have a date in mind. This will dictate where you’ll go and what kind of gear you’ll want with you. In the winter, you might have to contend with freezing temperatures, which means you’ll have to think about your water supply in more detail than in the summer.
You might also want a thicker sleeping pad and bag. Your clothing layers may be thicker, and you may have more clothing to pack in your hiking backpack. In the summer, you can get away with wearing fewer layers of clothing. However, staying hydrated might be more of a challenge. REI suggests using a hydration bladder in hot weather so that you’re more likely to sip water throughout your hike.
How Will You Get There?
If you’re planning to fly to your destination, you need to know the TSA regulations for hiking backpacks. Stove fuel, trekking poles and knives can’t travel in your carry-on luggage. Therefore, you might want to consider checking a bag if you don’t want to make those purchases when you reach your destination. Even when they’re checked, pointy items must be stored properly. You’ll need a hard case or sheath around sharp objects. The downside to checking your bag is that the straps can get caught in the baggage handling machinery. Wrapping the waist strap around the pack and buckle it before checking your luggage. Shorten all of the other straps. An alternative is to enclose the entire backpack in a duffel bag.
What Type Of Backpacking Will You Be Doing?
If you plan to set up a base camp and go on day hikes from there, you might want a lighter pack for your treks. However, you might also need a sturdier tent than one that you will disassemble every day, which means that you’ll need a hiking backpack that can carry it. Those who will camp along the trail might consider bringing a hammock and tarp or another alternative shelter solution.
Do You Need Trekking Poles?
Many hikers use trekking poles for stability while they’re walking. You need to familiarize yourself with the conditions of the hiking trail to determine whether you’ll need poles. According to Hiking Guy, poles come in handy when you:
- Traverse a river or stream
- Go up or down a steep incline
- Need to move brush out of your way
- Encounter dangerous wildlife
- Hike in winter conditions
- Want to get a full-body workout
- Carry a heavy pack
- Need support for an ultralight shelter
Trekking poles are fairly light and won’t add a lot of weight to your pack. However, attaching them to your backpack may pose a problem. This ThoughtCo. author explains that backpacks with external attachments for poles might be the most convenient. You can also place the poles into the side pockets of your pack and secure them using the compression straps. Compression straps alone can hold your poles. You can also thread the poles horizontally under the top flap of your pack, although this setup can be cumbersome.
Choose Your Hiking Buddies
Bearfoot Theory explains that you should decide whether you’re hiking with friends or going alone. If you can spread out the load between your backpacking partners, you might be able to share tents, cooking equipment, and water filtration systems. This will cut down on each person’s load.
How To Pack A Long-Term Hike In A Single Hiking Backpack
Purchase a backpack based on the size of your load and the type of hiking that you’ll be doing. Don’t buy the hiking backpack first and then try to fit your stuff into it. The best advice for packing for a long-term hike is to start early. Your first attempt at packing your gear should not be your last. Even if you haven’t purchased all of your food yet, you can get a sense of how everything fits in your pack by practicing.
This Sierra Trading Post article suggests making lists of the items that you want to bring. Separate them by category. This will not only help you stay organized for your next journey but also make prepping for your next trek easier. REI has a backpacking checklist to give you an idea of the items that you might need for your excursion.
Pack By Zone
Organizing your items by zone will help you find them more easily. It will also distribute the weight properly so that you can carry the load. In addition to paying attention to the zones specified below, you should also keep heavier items close to your spine and frequently used items on top or on the outside of your pack, according to this video.
REI suggests that he bottom of your pack should be dedicated to the bulky items that you’ll only need once you reach camp. These may include:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Clothing that you plan to sleep in
- Camp shoes
Some people choose to pack their tent in this zone. However, if you’ll be setting up or taking down the tent in inclement weather, you might want to strap it to the outside of your pack so that you don’t have to open the compartments to make camp. The downside to storing your tent outside of your backpack is that it could get snagged on a branch while you hike.
The core of your pack should contain heavy items that you won’t need to access on the trail. If you place these items too low, your hiking backpack might sag. If you place them too high, your pack might feel like it’s pulling you backward. Items to place in the core zone include:
- Camp meals
- Cooking and stove accessories
- Water reservoir
- Filled bear canister
If you carry a water reservoir, fill it and insert it into the pack before adding the other items. Stuff soft items, such as a tent, rain fly and clothing around bulkier items in this zone. You can also use soft items to protect your water reservoir.
Items that you might need to access during the hike can be stored in the top zone. These might include:
- Rain jacket
- Water filtration system
- First-aid kit
- Toilet supplies
Now you can organize the smaller items in the accessory pockets. This is where you might keep:
- Bug spray and sunscreen
- Water bottles
Oddly shaped tools can be strapped onto the lashings or compression straps on the outside of the backpack. Watch NOLS field staffing director and senior instructor Marco Johnson fill his hiking backpack from start to finish in this video.
Tips For Packing Everything You Need
Globotreks recommends analyzing everything that you want to carry with you. If you think something is necessary, consider whether you can get it in a smaller size or lighter weight. The company also offers a list of 15 unnecessary items that typically make their way into hikers’ packs. Food is heavy and can take up a lot of space. Repackage them so that they take up less room. Eat the heavier snacks first, and try using dehydrated alternatives, such as powdered juice and instant potatoes.
Although stuff sacks can come in handy for organizing your things and keeping them dry, they can restrict your ability to spread out the load. Section Hiker recommends lining your hiking backpack with a garbage bag instead and using some small, soft items to fill in gaps.
Ready To Go?
Don’t let your first trip become your last. Understand, however, that the ideal setup for a multi-day hike will be perfected through experience. Enjoying your journey depends on your mindset as much as your preparation. If you can’t imagine squatting in the woods and using a leaf as toilet paper, you might be better off driving into your campsite or staying at a hotel.